Education Week Turns 35 Amid Internal and External Changes

By Mark Walsh — September 07, 2016 3 min read
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Name that year:

An entertainer-turned-politician upends presidential politics. Republicans are intent on downgrading the U.S. Department of Education from cabinet status. And a new media outlet begins covering K-12 education from a national perspective.

Answer: 1981.

That’s the year Republican Ronald Reagan succeeded President Jimmy Carter, leading to the Reagan administration’s early-term effort to dismantle the still new Cabinet-level Education Department. And that is the year that saw the debut of Education Week.

The lead story in the very first issue of Education Week, on Sept. 7, 1981, carried the headline, “Far-Reaching Shift in Federal Role Urged by Bell.”

The copyrighted story by Eileen White began this way: “Details of a tightly-guarded memorandum on the future of the U.S. Education Department—sent to the White House early last month by Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell—offer a precise blueprint not only for downgrading the year-old department to the status of a sub-Cabinet-level foundation, but also for engineering a fundamental realignment of the federal role in American education.”

“The 91-page memorandum, a copy of which has been obtained by Education Week, asserts that ‘the Federal Government does not have responsibility for education,’” the story continued.

That was 35 years ago on Wednesday. Of course, the Education Department would not be downgraded, and Reagan later helped launch the modern school accountability movement with his administration’s “A Nation at Risk” report.

In 2006, on the occasion of Education Week‘s 25th anniversary, Jeff Archer captured the early impact of the newspaper and its more lasting influence on education policy debates.

“Ever since [its founding], the newspaper has made the case that K-12 education is an issue worthy of a national dialogue,” Archer wrote in Education Week. “What happens in Washington affects what happens in classrooms across the country. What happens in one state or district matters to others. And education is a field of powerful ideas, institutions, and people.”

“In doing so,” Archer continued, “the independent weekly helped write the first draft of the history of an intense period of change in education, including the decline of busing for desegregation, the rise of the standards movement, debates over teaching methods and educator training, and the resurgence of the federal role.”

This year has brought further reflection on the impact of Education Week in what is now a vastly different media landscape.

In January, the annual Quality Counts report, which grades the states on accountability issues, published its 20th edition. In this piece I wrote, Ronald A. Wolk, the founder of Education Week and of the Quality Counts report, offered his recollections of the beginnings of the highly anticipated annual report, including how the effort almost ended up in the lap of a another publication—U.S. News & World Report.

Meanwhile, in May, Virginia B. Edwards, the longtime editor of Education Week and the president of its parent organization, Editorial Projects in Education Inc., announced her plans to step down after leading the newspaper into the digital era.

Here is a video of Edwards chatting with Education Week Video correspondent Lisa Stark:

Edwards’s departure took effect Aug 1, when Michele J. Givens, the publisher and general manager of EPE, became president and chief executive officer.

Around that time, Joshua Benton, the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, a think tank founded to help the news business figure out its future in the internet age, told me in this story that “what Education Week has that is most valuable is a direct relationship with its readers, and a very defined audience that is of interest to advertisers.”

“I’d rather be in [Education Week‘s] shoes than in the shoes of a middling, mid-market daily newspaper these days,” said Benton, who was an award-winning education beat reporter for The Dallas Morning News, a daily considered well above “middling.”

After 35 years, the debates over standards and accountability, school governance, teacher preparation, and the proper role of the federal government, have not been settled. And Education Week is still around to help lead the coverage and the conversation.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.